Birthday, Basil & Cheesecake, Oh, My!

Basil Infused Strawberry Cheesecake

Basil Infused Strawberry Cheesecake

It was 11 years ago, on her 18th birthday, when I presented Caitlin with 18 hand-written love letters. It was an annual event for me to write my baby girl a letter on July 14th and stash it away in a “treasure box”. Now, as she was leaving the nest, it was time for my first-born to have them. Hopefully, seeing herself through a loving mother’s eyes and remembering all the goodness she had brought to our family would give her strength and wisdom as she set off on her own.

Cait & Sam graduate

Cait & Sam graduate

As parents, Bill and I could not have been more proud when Caitlin graduated with honors in economics from Wake Forest University. Wow!-we thought, money well-spent. She was on her way to her first big job in Philadelphia and the huge responsibility of seriously paying her own bills (woohoo!) Pretty sure there were times when she wished she was back in college, but she perseveres receiving promotion after promotion. Hello Ms Marketing Director.


And then came marriage and one of the happiest days of our lives. Hello, Mrs. Pemberton. Tomorrow she turns 29 and I realize I owe her way more than a love letter, but that is between me and her.

love my baby girl

love my baby girl

I will, however, share with you her favorite dessert which is cheesecake. Inspired by the plentiful basil in my garden and the juiciest, ripest strawberries ever this recipe is cause for celebration. Happy Birthday dear Caitlin!


Basil Infused Strawberry Cheesecake

1-cup heavy cream

8 fresh basil leaves, plus additional for garnish

1 tablespoon powdered sugar


1 cup crushed chocolate cookie crumbs (18 Nabisco Chocolate Wafer cookies)

2 tablespoons sugar

4 tablespoons melted butter


3 (8 oz) packages cream cheese, softened

¾ cup sugar

3 eggs

1 pound fresh strawberries (reserve 9 berries for garnish and puree the rest)

1 teaspoon vanilla

¼ cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream

Heat oven to 325F. In a microwave safe measuring cup heat heavy cream on HIGH for 1 minute. Bruise basil leaves lightly with your fingers and submerge in hot cream; set aside to steep. Mix cookie crumbs, sugar and butter until crumbly; press over bottom of 9-inch spring-form pan; bake 8 minutes. Cool on wire rack. In large bowl, beat cream cheese and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs, strawberry puree (you should have about 1 cup), vanilla, ¼ cup of basil infused heavy cream (cover and refrigerate the remaining basil-cream mixture) and yogurt until well mixed. Pour batter into crust. Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until center is just set. Do not over bake. Cool to room temperature before transferring to the refrigerator to chill completely. Run a knife around the pan sides. Remove sides of pan. Remove basil from chilled cream. Add powdered sugar and beat with an electric mixture to stiff peaks. Garnish top of cheesecake with basil-whipped cream, reserved strawberries and basil sprigs, if desired.


#1 place a piece of plastic wrap over the bowl of your food processor before securing the top to keep the top from getting dirty (since I hate washing the top)

#2 use a flat bottom cup to pat the crumb crust into place and the back of a spoon to smooth around the edge

Life Changing Choices & Scones


prize winning jam filled scones

prize winning jam filled scones

What does the Pillsbury Bake-Off and the Navy have in common? Well, it is about life changing choices. Like “nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “taking the road less travelled”. It’s taking one step forward into the unknown. That first step of change can be exciting, scary or not whatever you expected it to be.

William is stepping on the Green Giant's foot

William is stepping on the Green Giant’s foot

Anyone who enters recipe contests completely understands the notion of being bitten by the contest bug. That is what happens to me after Pillsbury names my “Glasnost Apple Pie” a finalist in 1990 (Bake-Off #34). What??? I won??? Hard to believe taking that first step with my little recipe makes me realize that some one besides those who love me like my food. Nothing would ever be the same. My very first contest experience was incredibly fabulous and the funny thing, I did not win a dime. So, it wasn’t about the prizes, but the experience.  It was life-changing as my passion for cooking turned into a lucrative hobby.

Four years later I landed a finalist spot again. This time the whole family was flying to the Del Coronado Hotel in San Diego to enjoy Bake-Off #36 festivities and the family vacation of a lifetime. Can you imagine a private party at Sea World? My kids thought I was a genius. While I prepared Middleberry Scones my husband and children were out at the beach.  Bill later tells me that William was completely captivated by some US Navy SEALS who were out in the cold Pacific practicing maneuvers. When he asked his dad to explain who these guys were and what they were doing he declared, “I am going to be one of those guys some day.” He was only 5 years old when he made that life-changing decision. He never wavered from the dream of joining the Navy.

Losing William in a tragic accident is the sudden destruction of the world I know.  Unanticipated death is so shocking and overwhelming; it is incapacitating. I did not see it coming and I am not prepared to defend myself. There are not enough coping skills in my arsenal to save me from this pain, but there is a daughter who over time digs down deep and gently pulls me up from the depths of despair. There is also an unexplained energy. It comes in the physical form of a heart, a squeeze like a bear hug and vivid dreams. And it comes at unexpected times. I call them “whoosh moments”. Psychiatrists and psychologists are quick to write that these incidences are the griever’s inability to accept the unacceptable. I say the MD’s and the PhD’s don’t know Jack or I mean Will. Some day I will explain.

William accompanied me to quite a few cook-offs. He was like a good luck charm always encouraging me to just do my best and have fun. He made me feel like a winner much like all who were ever in his presence. I am so very proud to be a Navy Corpsman mom and thankful for all the special memories of my sweet William. He was the best of the best. And to all of those who love him, too, or ever lost a child, I promise he/she is with you. Choose not to suffer. Choose to celebrate his or her life. Please share YOUR whoosh moments.

Next month 100 finalists will by vying for a 1 million dollar prize at the 46th Pillsbury Bake-Off. For 1 lucky winner it will surely be a life changing experience, but maybe for the other 99 as well. In the meantime, enjoy my prize-winning Middleberry Scones with a cup of tea and celebrate all the life changing choices and whoosh moments in your life.

Middleberry Scones

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

2 Tbsp. sugar

1 Tbsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. grated orange peel

1/4 cup butter or margarine

2/3 cup half-and-half

1 egg

1/3 cup raspberry or strawberry preserves

1 tsp. sugar

Spread and Garnish:

1 (3-oz.) package cream cheese, softened

16 fresh raspberries or strawberries, if desired

1 tsp. grated orange peel, if desired

Heat oven to 425ºF. Lightly grease cookie sheet. In large bowl, combine flours, 2 Tbsp. sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and 1 tsp. orange peel; mix well. Using fork or pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. In small bowl, combine half-and-half and egg; blend well. Add to flour mixture. Stir just until dry ingredients are moistened. Turn dough out onto well-floured surface; knead lightly 4 times. Divide in half; pat each half into 8” circle. Place 1 circle on greased cookie sheet; spread preserves to within 1” of edge. Place remaining circle over preserves; pinch edges to seal. Sprinkle top with 1 tsp. sugar. Cut into 8 wedges; do not separate. Bake 15-18 minutes or until edges are golden. Cut through scones. Serve warm with cream cheese; garnish with berries and 1 tsp. orange peel.